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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
A trapped California bighorn sheep waits in a pen until it can be relocated after being vaccinated, weighed and radio-collared on Antelope Island.

ANTELOPE ISLAND — Last week, 55 California bighorn sheep took flight, albeit a short one, from their mountaintop home to a reception area a couple miles away.

Upon landing, firmly planted, they were given a physical, dressed in a new radio collar and given a ticket to a new home — 35 going to Stansbury Mountains and 20 to Newfoundland Mountains.

Next year, more island sheep could take the short flight and go on to a new home, and the year after, more sheep.

The island herd, said Steve Bates, wildlife biologists with the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, is so productive now, "this could become an annual event."

The first group of sheep, 23 of them, were put on the island in 1997. Today, the herd numbers around 200.

"Our target is to keep the herd between 120 to 150 sheep," said Justin Dolling, northern region biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "In this effort, we will take a fair number of larger rams in order to allow more ewes to carry over, and thus increase their ability to reproduce."

And there were, in this trapping operation, a large number of older rams with their trademark circular horns that were caught and moved.

Biologists, volunteers and a crew from a private capture company gathered in the early hours of the morning.

The first sheep came in mid-morning. The plan was to capture 35 sheep the first day and, if necessary, complete the capture over two following days.

The capture team flew the high ridges of the island by helicopter and when the right sheep was spotted, they swooped down and from an open door shot a neon-colored net over the animal.

Crew members then untangled the sheep, hog-tied and blindfolded it, and then wrapped each animal in a canvas carrying bag, which was then hooked to a cable under the helicopter. The suspended passenger was then flown to the reception area below Buffalo Point on the northern end of the island.

Once checked and tagged, each animal was placed in trailers and driven to its new home.

Dolling also pointed out that the island is a very productive nursery for sheep, primarily because it is disease free. Upwards of 35 to 40 lambs a year are born into the herd.

The greatest threat to the survival of wild sheep is domestic sheep. Domestic sheep carry a number of diseases they can tolerate, but which are fatal to wild sheep.

Once domestic sheep have grazed range, it takes several years before it is safe for wild sheep. Back in 1997, when the first sheep came in from Kamloops, British Columbia, the island had been free of domestic sheep for decades.

"There are also few environmental disturbances here and no large predators, like cougars and bears. Coyotes may take a few lambs, but the sheep don't have to deal with the big predators," said Dolling.

As a result, the herd grew rapidly. By the fall of 2000, the island herd had grown to 80 sheep. At that time, 15 were captured and moved to the Newfoundland Mountains to the west of the Great Salt Lake to establish a new herd. By February 2003, the island herd had grown to 118 animals and at that time, 20 more sheep were captured and moved to the Newfoundland Mountains. In 2005, 50 sheep were moved and now 55 more have been captured and moved.

Early records — including American Indian rock art and stories from explorers — indicate that bighorn sheep were widespread over Utah. Changes in habitat, disease and over-hunting reduced Utah's sheep population to a small band of desert bighorn in the southern reaches of the state.

Through strict management and importation of sheep from other states, Utah's bighorn sheep population is rebounding — not only on the island and the Stansbury and Newfoundland mountains, but also on Mount Timpanogos, areas around Moab and Canyonlands, Uinta Mountains, and the San Juan and San Rafael areas.

Here in Utah, there are three species of bighorn — Rocky Mountain, California and desert. The desert bighorn is the smallest of the three. A desert ram will weigh about 125 pounds, a Rocky Mountain ram about 250 and a California ram somewhere between the two.

The desert bighorn roams the dry areas along the Colorado Plateau in southern and southeastern Utah, with a few holding in the Mojave area by the Virgin River.

The Rocky Mountain sheep are mostly found along the Green River corridor between Flaming Gorge and the town of Green River, with the most recent herds holding on Mount Timpanogos and Provo peaks.

The California sheep are found on Antelope Island, Stansbury and Newfoundland mountains.

Studies show that animals placed in an empty habitat, as in the case of the island sheep, do amazingly well. Thinning the herd, said Bates, will keep the sheep on this upward curve and will makeit possible to expand existing herds and establish new ones.

Which means in order to maintain manageable numbers, trapping and moving sheep from the island may become, as Bates said, an annual event.

E-mail: grass@desnews.com